Gavriel Tan and John Lee are both senior students at Republic Polytechnic (RP). They looked forward to securing internships abroad, but unfortunately Covid-19 had dampened their plans.
When they found out they could replace their internship with their school's Incubation Accelerator program, they decided to apply for it instead.
At the same time, they happened upon a United Nations book entitled "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Safety". She piqued her interest in converting insects into functional foods and came up with the idea of protein bars made from cricket meal.
This very novel idea gave them a $ 10,000 prototype grant to help fuel their business ventures. Called Altimate Nutrition (Altimate is a play on "alternative" and "ultimate"), it claims to be Singapore's first company to make insect food products for humans.
Crickets are high in protein
Altimate Nutrition essentially converts extracted cricket meal into nutritious and sustainable foods.
"We chose protein bars because it is a well-known food that is widely consumed by athletes and people with active lifestyles, which are our first target segments," said Gavriel.
In the meantime, their target group has concentrated more on health-conscious and environmentally conscious young people and working adults.
Additionally, they felt that the existing protein bars on the market are unsustainable (in terms of protein source) and not as nutritious as insect protein bars.
Altimate Nutrition Protein Bar / Image Source: Altimate Nutrition
When asked why they chose to make cricket-based flour protein bars, Gavriel explained that crickets are actually a complete source of protein (more than 70 percent protein content) with all nine essential amino acids. They are also rich in essential micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron.
In addition to its nutritional properties, they also opted for cricket protein flour because of its resource efficiency. Aside from these factors, it is undoubtedly a challenge for them to get consumers to overcome the "ick" factor.
“People always have this stigma that associates insects with negative connotations like poverty and dirt. However, our products have all passed successful microbial and nutritional tests to prove that they meet food standards that are safe for consumption, ”assures Gavriel.
He added that instead of focusing too much on their origins, they present their products as an all-in-one nutritious supplement.
"We shed light on the nutritious properties of insects like crickets and how they can potentially help improve our food and nutrition security."
Despite being constantly criticized for not convincing anyone to consume insects, they took this as constructive feedback and continued product development.
"When it came time to conduct our sensory assessment, our panelists were impressed that our products performed better than other commercial protein bars we compared."
They spent six months developing their first products
Altimate Nutrition started during the time of the breakers, which severely hampered their progress.
Due to the lockdown of their school and food research lab, they were unable to access the necessary equipment, leading them to question their ability to make foods with flavors that everyone can enjoy.
Altimate Protein Bars in Double Chocolate and Peanut Butter Cinnamon / Image source: Altimate Nutrition
The two tweaked their recipes several times and spent nearly six months achieving their first two flavors: double chocolate and peanut butter cinnamon.
"There weren't any recipes that were easy to find online for insect-based foods, so we had to do a lot of extensive research and experimentation on our proposed formulations," laments Gavriel.
Due to the novelty of their insect-based food, it was not easy for them to find well-informed people in the field and they had to learn a lot by reading scientific papers, books and the like.
“Fortunately, with the help of our school, we got to know industrial partners in the food industry who helped us to accelerate our product development. At first the reactions were quite skeptical and people weren't very open to the idea when we invited them to the product tasting. "
“When they tried our products, however, what they were most impressed with was the taste and how 'normal' it felt to consume insect-based products. Most of them have also expressed an interest in consuming them again or even buying them as soon as we have them on the market. "
Enter the alternative protein field
Both are biotech students, but Gavriel specializes in food science (with a Diploma Plus in Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship) while John specializes in research.
With these skills, they were confident that they would break into the alternative protein field, even though it was their very first business venture.
Cricket meal / Image source: Dr. Ax
When asked about the reactions of her family and friends when they first broke the news about Altimate Nutrition, Gavriel revealed that many initially doubted their ability to develop and commercialize such a novel product, especially one with one such unorthodox ingredient – insect meal.
"There were also a lot of uncertainties that we wouldn't call criticism as we usually take them as constructive feedback to help improve our ideas," said Gavriel.
“Amazingly, there weren't that many negative reactions when we were young to get into entrepreneurship. Instead, the community around us was very supportive of our idea and even offered to help us at every point on the journey so far, ”he said, adding that they also received a lot of support from RP's Office of Entrepreneurship Development.
It is only a matter of time before insects become a staple food
Altimate Nutrition is currently pending approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). Once approved, they look for partnerships to distribute their products.
"We are currently talking to a few distributors, gyms, lifestyle stores, and sustainable 'green' stores," said Gavriel, adding that they are targeting a retail price of S $ 5.
As they near the commercialization phase, they are also trying to raise funds and apply for other grants.
Commenting on the food technology industry, Gavriel says one of the biggest sectors of growth is alternative proteins made from plants, cultured meat, and insects.
"The food tech industry is definitely a booming industry, especially in Singapore, where food security is a major focus."
“There is a global need for new food innovations to curb our current unsustainable meat production. As the world population continues to grow, new food innovations will enable us to tackle rising problems such as climate change and the inhumane treatment of animals related to the current food ecosystem. "
Gavriel said Altimate Nutrition plans to have farm-to-fork control of their products by the end of next year and build an automated cricket farm in Singapore.
He said they are working on some new flavors now and are not ruling out the possibility of other cricket products such as pasta, chips, muffins and shakes being launched in the future.
“The world is slowly but surely finding a way to incorporate insects as a staple food. It will happen whether we like it or not, because our finite resources will ultimately drive humanity to look for an alternative source to meet the growing demand for food. "
Featured Image Source: Altimate Nutrition